The Data Shows Anthony Seldon is Wrong

Henry Stewart's picture
This week Anthony Seldon, Head of Wellington College, caused a stir by claiming that "public school students are being discriminated against" and "Positive discrimination in favour of state school people has become the hatred that dare not speak its name."

There is no doubt that Seldon was reflecting a belief that seems widespread among private school parents and private schools, but does the data back up his view? I would certainly expect Anthony to take an approach based on the evidence, in the analytic manner he surely teaches his students to use.

Seldon stated that 62 of his students were clever enough to get an Oxbridge interview but he expected only 20 to get in. This is an odd argument. The comprehensive I chair also has a whole bunch of students who are clever enough to get an Oxbridge interview, but we expect only a third to get in. That is the reality of Oxbridge: less than one in three of those they interview get in. Get real, Anthony.

We know that the % of admissions to Oxbridge from state schools is 55% for Oxford and 63% for Cambridge, and that this is lower than the 67% of AAA grades accounted for by state schools. So statistically if you get AAA from a private school, you are more likely to get to Oxbridge than if you get AAA from a state school.

However there could be many reasons for this. State school teachers are sometimes accused of persuading their students not to apply to Oxbridge and some state school students may be put off by the impression that Oxbridge is posh. The key data we need, therefore, is a comparison of admission rates from state and private sectors from the student who actually apply and have the necessary qualifications. Luckily this data is not hard to find, as both Oxford and Cambridge Universities analyse it, and it is surprising that Anthony Seldon has not checked it before making his claims.

What the data tells us

Oxford University: 63.1% of UK applications came from state schools, but only 57.5% of admissions. 36.9% of applications came from private schools, resulting in 42.5%  of admissions.

The article goes on to explain why this might be the case, suggesting state school students apply for more over-subscribed subjects. However the evidence is clear. You are more likely, not less, to get into Oxford if you went to private school.

Cambridge University: Cambridge goes into more detail, analysing numbers who achieved A*AA, A*A*A and A*A*A*. Although its entry requirement is A*AA, it suggests A*A*A is a better benchmark for those who actually get in. It suggests "61-64% would seem appropriate" for the proportion of admissions coming from state schools. Cambridge managed to boost its state school admissions to 63% in 2012 and so, possibly for the first time, the chances of admission are roughly equal whether you went to private or state school.

The data is clear. Whatever Mr Seldon and so many private school parents may feel, private school students have a better chance of getting into Oxford and roughly equal chance of getting into Cambridge, compared to state school students applying with similar A level results. The idea that private school pupils are being discriminated against by Oxbridge is a product of Mr Seldon's fertile imagination.

This does not address the question of whether Oxbridge should actually discriminate. A young person I know, from a local comprehensive, recently went to an Oxbridge interview and met an Etonian who told her he had been given four hours coaching a week for his interview for the previous term. She had managed two one-hour practice interviews in total. It is not a level playing field between private schools with decades of experience of getting students into Oxbridge, and close connections with colleges there, and those schools who may never have sent a student to Oxbridge, or only have got a handful in.
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